Joseph and I recently interviewed Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein of indie-rock stalwarts Sebadoh in Houston. During the interview, we discussed Sebadoh’s role in what I call “the democratization of indie-rock” that occurred during the ‘90s. The basic premise of Sebadoh - three guys sharing vocal, instrumental, and compositional duties, pouring their hearts out by committing every musical idea to tape on the nearest and cheapest multitrack available - gave many other musicians an example to follow. Because of Sebadoh, and especially Barlow’s solo project Sentridoh, it seemed as if every lovelorn guy with a four-track and a couple of instruments started putting out records. As is the case with all musical trends, the Revenge of the Bedroom Troubadours produced a lot more chaff than wheat. For every Minnetonka there were ten Ralph Solos (long live Black Bean and Placenta, y’all) and for every Pumpernickel there were twenty Nippers. (You don’t remember Nipper? Well, I wish that I could trade places with you.)
There were some harsh lessons to be learned from last decade’s “lo-fi” revolution. Just because you’ve got a broken heart doesn’t mean you should write a song about it. Just because you own a four-track doesn’t mean you should make a record. Just because you own a bunch of instruments doesn’t mean that you can play them all. Just because you wrote 30 songs about your broken heart doesn’t mean that every last one of them has to be on your record. Keep in mind, though, that six months ago, the person writing this review just released a CD with 21 songs on it, many of which were inspired by a painful breakup, and all of which were played and sung almost entirely by yours truly. For all you know, I could be the proverbial pot calling the kettle African-American. Now that I’ve given full disclosure, I must say that whenever a lo-fi one-man band releases a record that isn’t indulgent, self-absorbed or incompetent, attention must be paid. Emperor X’s debut CD Tectonic Membrane is a necessary reminder of what was so good about the “lo-fi” revolution in the first place. Just because a record has the fidelity of a demo doesn’t necessarily mean it has to have the QUALITY of one.
25-year-old Floridian C. Matheny (the Emperor himself) has a lot of things in his favor. First of all, he’s got a gift for melody that keeps his nasal, reedy voice from sounding unpleasant even when he strains to hit the notes. Second of all, he’s competent at every instrument he lays his hands on. It’s telling that on the one song in which a guest drummer appears (the rollicking “Constantly Constantly Radio’s On”), the drumming is actually sloppier than his own. Third of all, he’s got a knack for unexpected arrangements that keeps listeners from getting bored. An out-of-tune oboe appears out of nowhere halfway through “Laminate Factory,” and other songs (“A Hole in the Earth’s Spin Tone,” “Intracellular”) build tension by slowly layering instruments on top of one another until they reach bombastic climaxes. Matheny can switch from dinky Postal Service synth-pop to Sentridoh-style acoustic ballads to loop-driven sound collages, and all of it works, the cacophonous “Unworthiness Drones” being the sole exception.
Matheny’s songs, although insular, avoid extreme navel-gazing. He spikes his pessimism with enough humor to keep the music itself from being a bummer. For every “I’d like to dig you out but the shovel’s hid” (“Filene’s Basement”), there’s an “I wanna have fun but I don’t wanna smell bad” (“A Hole in the Earth’s Spin Tone”). His lyrics are crammed with details that draw attentive listeners closer to the center of his mind. “Florencia Tropicana”’s examination of the difficulty of maintaining personal connections through long distances is tailor-made for computer geeks. File extensions, tourist landmarks, and Web sites are all name-dropped. How Matheny can sing lines like “I made a tape recording of the Boston Bridge/and sent as an attachment but Friendster lost it” without making me want to punch him in his pocket protector is beyond me, but he pulls it off.
The songs on Tectonic Membrane are infused with the kind of intimacy that the best bedroom troubadours seem to have a monopoly on. Matheny’s friends butt into his songs at the most random moments. Note the high school choir that can barely keep from bursting into laughter during the coda of opening track “Exterminata Beat,” or the faraway shouting you hear throughout “Constantly Constantly Radio’s On.” Moments like these make me feel as if I’m eavesdropping on a party that I never knew I was invited to. By the time the album ends, I feel as if I’m sitting right next to Emperor X as he sings his songs.
Closer “I Want a Baby/Pre-Exterminata” begins with Matheny noting all of the major events that happened to him over the summer. He sings, “You should never have a baby in the summertime/if it’s not mine,” to the former flame of his that didn’t stick around to share these major events with him. After admitting his own desire for a child, the song segues into an instrumental reprise of the album’s first song. While the reprise plays, I recall the moment when Matheny asks, “How far along are you in your pregnancy?” in “Exterminata Beat.” I then realize that I’ve been listening to yet another concept album about heartbreak all along, but it didn’t sink in until Matheny played his trump card at album’s end. At no point on this album do I feel like he’s beating me upside the head with the pieces of his broken heart. Matheny’s talent and subtlety make me thank Sebadoh once again for paving the way for people like him to make records like Tectonic Membrane.